TUNIS - The British government gave tourists the green light to resume travelling to Tunisia, having concluded that the North African country had made significant improvements to security conditions, particularly in tourist areas.
UK Minister of State for Security Ben Wallace, at the end of a 3-day trip to Tunisia, said: “It has been really impressive what I have seen over the last few days. I look forward to the fact there is going to be lots more British people coming in the next few weeks.”
Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui said the United Kingdom’s assessment of Tunisia’s security conditions would have a “very positive” effect on the tourism industry.
“Wallace visited several locations where he noted strengthened security measures around sensitive areas and tourist areas to prepare for the arrivals and stays of tourists in better conditions,” Jhinaoui said.
Britain’s updated travel advice is good news for an industry that seems to be rebounding. Tourist arrivals to Tunisia, which plummeted after terrorist attacks in 2015, improved 32.5% in 2017 compared to the previous year and totalled 7.5 million people, government figures stated. The World Tourism Organisation ranked Tunisia’s leisure industry the fifth most rapidly expanding in the world in 2017.
Tourism has historically been a major driver of Tunisia’s economy, bringing in needed foreign currency and employing thousands. In 2014, Tunisia earned around $2 billion in tourism revenue.
That changed in June 2015 when an Islamic State gunman killed 38 people — mostly British tourists — in the resort town of Sousse. That attack, along with one in March on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis that claimed 22 lives that year, prompted London to advise against “all but essential travel” to the country, resulting in a marked decline in the number of British and European visitors.
In the first quarter of 2016, the number of tourists to Tunisia dropped 21.5% compared to the same period the year before. British arrivals fell even more dramatically, down to 8,000 in the first three months of 2016 versus 190,000 during the same period the year before.
The British government lifted its travel warning for most regions of Tunisia in 2017 and Thomas Cook, a leading tour operator, announced it would start flying British tourists to Tunisia as of mid-February.
The news came as a relief to the Tunisian government, which has struggled against high inflation rates, unemployment, dwindling hard currency resources and a stagnant economy.
There have been mass protests over unemployment in the southern region of Gafsa, which paralysed phosphate production, resulting in huge losses for one of the country’s most lucrative sectors.
“The phosphate production is being halted 100% since January 20,” said junior Energy and Mining Minister Hachem Hmidi.
Tunisia was once one of the world’s largest producers of phosphate but its market share fell sharply after strikes and protests following the 2011 uprising that toppled former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Tunisia received more bad news February 7 when the European Union listed it as a third-party country with “strategic deficiencies in (its) anti-money laundering and terrorism financing regime.”
Economists warned the determination could undermine Tunisia’s credibility and hinder foreign investment at a time when the country is preparing to sell 1 billion euros ($1.22 billion) worth of bonds to finance its budget deficit.
Following the EU blacklisting, Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed submitted a proposal to dismiss Central Bank of Tunisia Governor Chedly Ayari.
Tunisian financial expert Ezzedine Saidane said the EU action would have “serious repercussions” for Tunisia’s economy.
“Each foreigner eyeing investment in Tunisia would be subject in his home country of suspicions of money laundering and the motives of his investments will be questioned,” Saidane said.
On the security front, Tunisia has been on the offensive against jihadists since early 2016, when officials dismantled numerous extremist cells across the country.
On January 20, a Tunisian special operations unit killed two commanders of Okba Ibn Nafaa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) Tunisian branch, outside Sbeitla, near the Algerian border.
“We are achieving great progress in the fight against extremist groups,” Interior Ministry spokesman Khalifa Chibani said.
Interior Minister Lotfi Brahem told parliament that security forces carried out 122,000 raids on safe houses and other locations suspected of links to jihadists in 2017, detaining 1,456 suspects.
Tunisia has strengthened cooperation with Algeria on counterterrorism matters to shield the Sahel from spillover from the conflict in neighbouring Libya.
Algerian special forces killed eight AQIM commanders in the mountainous eastern region of Khenchela. The late January operation came after Tunisian and Algerian security services shared intelligence and monitoring capabilities, security officials said.
Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.